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A new film examines footage staged by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto

A.J. Goldmann
August 11, 2010
A still from A Film Unfinished.(Oscilloscope Laboratories)
A still from A Film Unfinished.(Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Months before the Warsaw Ghetto was to be liquidated, Joseph Goebbels commissioned a documentary about Ghetto life. The project was never completed, but the surviving raw footage forms the backbone of a new documentary, Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished, which opens in New York and Los Angeles next week and nationwide thereafter.

The footage, shot by German cameramen in April and May of 1942 and stored away for decades in an East German film archive, shows elaborately choreographed scenes of Jewish ritual and practice. Some feature what are supposed to be well-off Jews living alongside (and in a state of indifference to) their starving coreligionists. All the scenes are carefully staged, as we see from the multiple takes. One of the most painful shows well-fed women and starving men reluctantly taking a dip in a mikveh.

The footage itself, which Hersonski, a 33-year-old Tel Aviv native, says has never before been presented as comprehensively, is maddeningly inconclusive. Was it meant to further convince the German public of the Jews’ degeneracy? Was it to be an ethnographic document of a vanished race after the Nazis had solved the Jewish Question? Why was the project shelved? There is no script, no narration—nothing but an hour of silent black-and-white footage.

This is certainly not the Nazi filmmaking we know. It doesn’t trumpet the beauty and purity of the Volk as in Triumph of the Will; nor does it melodramatically stir up hatred, as in Jud Süß.

For Hersonski, the key challenge was to find an appropriate way to package the four 35mm reels of archival material. “[Hersonski’s cameraman] spent most of his time thinking about how we could create something that will not harm the image and will allow the image to stay all the time foregrounded,” she said at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, where the documentary had its European premiere. The film had its U.S. premiere at Sundance in January, where it was awarded the festival’s World Cinema Documentary Editing Award.

Intercut with the original footage are interviews with Ghetto survivors located by Hersonski—four women and one man—who were children when the Nazis came with their cameras. “Although it was the largest Ghetto in Poland, only a few survivors remained alive after the uprising. And among those few, we succeeded in finding the few who remember the making of this film, which was for me inconceivable,” Hersonski said.

Finding ways to break up the original footage was not without its complications. One solution was to reenact the testimony of a German cameraman. “To my point of view, it’s almost impossible to watch the 62 minutes [of silent footage] without a stop,” the director told a Berlin audience member troubled by the reenactment. “I knew I had to invent a solution to make pauses between the scenes in order to let the viewer refresh his sight.”

And she has succeeded in sculpting an engaging documentary around the footage from the Ghetto. The film is well paced, unhurried, and, in its final minutes, contains a jarring reprieve: recently discovered 16mm color footage of the Ghetto that had been taken by a cameraman in his spare time.

The biggest ethical challenge presented by the material, Hersonski said, was devising a sensitive scheme for its presentation. “I had to show what they did,” she said. Still, some scenes—including a staged circumcision—had to be omitted. “I decided that there are some things that if they will be shown do not add something essential to the film but would just be a matter of bad taste,” she said.

The documentary still contains scenes of nudity and has been given an R rating, a decision that was appealed, unsuccessfully, by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, whose distribution company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, acquired the film in April. “In a world where young people are bombarded with meaningless entertainment, it’s unfortunate that a film with real educational and historic value would be denied to them by an organization that is supposed to be working to help them,” Yauch said after his failed appeal.

Yauch may have been echoing the filmmaker, who, in discussing the film, also focused on the question of media-saturation. “I have the feeling that we are bombarded with images that are taken from many places in the world, including the Middle East, of course. And it is very difficult to consume emotionally what we see,” she said.

For Hersonski, World War II represented a turning point in how atrocities were captured on film. “Something changed in us,” she said. “I wanted to go back to that time and take this footage as a case study in the way we think about what we are seeing documented.”

A.J. Goldmann is a writer based in Berlin. His articles on art and culture have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Forward.

A.J. Goldmann is a writer based in Munich. His articles on art and culture have appeared in, among other publications, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News Magazine, and The Forward.